Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.8A, 9-11
Published Online August 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 9
Promoting School Based Cohorts in
Distance/Online Learning
Janis McKinley, D. J. Champagne
Park University School for Education, Parkville, Missouri
Received June 18th, 2013; revised J uly 18th, 2013; accepted July 25th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Janis McKinley, D. J. Champagne. This is an open access article distributed under the Crea-
tive Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any me-
dium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Successful cohort online learning requires three important components: Community, Collaboration, and
Content. Looking at how to develop these components is discussed as a result of what is known by the
authors’ active engaging in the cohort online learning model.
Keywords: Cohort; Online Learning Model; 3 C’s; Community; Collaboration; Content
Online courses can be “just online courses”. What makes a
good, special, purposeful class? Our role with the “new class-
room” is to help the student make sense of complexity by con-
densing the new style for learning into two or three critical
goals. One such goal is that of forming a supportive learning
community within the distance/online learning, what we refer
to as a cohort. It is our intention to share a focus on three com-
ponents necessary for student success specifically aligned with
Park University’s distance learning philosophy. These compo-
nents are Community, Collaboration, and Content (McKinley &
Champagne, 2013). This discussion will elaborate on these
three components and share both definitions of explanations for
what we have found to be necessary in a successful Cohort
model for learning.
A cohort can be defined as a group of students treated as a
single degree, program-seeking group. Cohorts typically share a
professional identity and frequently teach within the same Dis-
trict (for the purposes of Educational Leadership and Teacher
Leadership graduate degree programs). Cohorts are specifically
recruited as a learning community throughout their program of
study, working together to accomplish the same goal—degree
completion. This definition embodies the early beliefs devel-
oped by Barnett and Muse (1993), describing the cohort as a
group of students who begin and complete a program of studies
together, engaging in a common set of courses, activities and/or
learning experiences (p. 401). While we are developing cohorts
for professional educators, it is clear that the cohort system is
applicable to any lik e -minded degree candidat es.
Research on cohort-based online learning has found the in-
tentionally unified group of learners provides emotional and
academic support to and for each member. This quality of sup-
port is directly linked to both motivation from and encourage-
ment to persevere from the members. Findings show online
discussion has the potential to increase critical thinking skills,
leading to activity success. This quality is found to increase
member satisfaction and reduce attrition (Lamb, Johnson, &
Smith, 1999-2010). Fisher and Baird’s (2005) study found on-
line learning, when connectedness and a sense of community
among peers and instructor are established, positively influ-
enced retention. A study conducted by Dietz-Uhler, Fisher and
Han (2007) also showed retention rates lower in long distance
online classes when compared with face-to-face classes. Bar-
nard, Paton, and Lan (2008) found peer approval, in the online
community, was valued and students wanted to be accepted by
the member s.
The 3 C’s
A benefit for cohort learning lies in establishing a sense of
community. Community is a necessary element for cohort suc-
cess. Community has a necessary quality of cohesiveness rec-
ognized and acknowledged by all cohort members. We believe
a secure start when engaging in the first online-class is vital to
developing this sense of cohesiveness. The idea “we are in this
together” must be developed in the introduction to the class
online platform. At Park University, personal introductions are
a part of each Course Home. A guideline (rubric) for personal
introduction is provided to encourage a presentation of each
unique member involved in the learning community. Although
a recruiting attempt is made for professionals already ac-
quainted to one another to form a cohort, frequently cohorts
develop online to which no one person may ever meet Face 2
Face (F2F). These introductions and sometimes pictures pro-
vide a commonality of purpose to group cohesiveness.
The Course Home contains information for what we believe
to be necessary elements for success. We have discussed the
introduction activity and the importance these statements play
in cohesive relationship building. The syllabus and an explana-
tion of how to navigate through the pieces/sections of the online
course are necessary pieces for a secure start. Netiquette is a
clearly established outline of communication etiquette expected
as a part of the policy for all online communication. The course
developer provides clear explanations of procedures and ex-
pectations with a course outline and rubrics for assessment of
activities including communication in the weekly discussion
threads—reinforcing netiquette. Positive support from the in-
structor helps to determine positive support between members,
establishing a sense of togetherness and commitment.
Communication is an element critical to establishing com-
munity in cohort learning. The typed word must convey pur-
poseful meaning to the other learners. No body language, no
ability for instantaneous elaboration—unless writing in a Chat
Room—makes online learning unique. The student must type
what they mean AND mean what they say. Decoding by the
reader can lend itself to interesting dialog strands within a dis-
cussion thread. Diligence, dedication, and the ability to edit and
elaborate the words/language are keys to successful communi-
cation and thus the ability to maintain cohort cohesiveness
(Jones, 2010). It is important the instructor use precise guide-
lines for participation or student’s will not be as involved as
they should be. It remains an important role of the instructor to
reinforce and revisit those expectations through discussion
Establishing the process for collaboration for online learning
is the quality necessary for cohort success. When we promote
cohort development with Districts or other degree-similar on-
line learners we stress the importance of collaboration. Col-
laboration involves interactions with others, including peer to
peer, student to faculty, and student to content. Collaboration
needs structure in expectations and the use of rubrics. The in-
structor needs to use flexibility in order to listen to students and
use good judgment in initiating elaboration of content items for
clarity or changes in deadlines, as an example, to promote stu-
dents success. Family emergencies, work duties, or computer
problems can present unexpected interruptions in a student’s
ability to meet deadlines. Collaboration involves each member
participating in the exchange of ideas and problem solving.
Team development is suggested with each member being re-
sponsible for their on learning as well as the work of teammates
(Lamb et al., 1999).
Communication that is collaborative and continual must be
afforded to the cohort online model for learning. The rules for
communication, having been initially established, will include
consequences. Teaching and communicating in the classroom
platform is a requisite. Avoiding private e-mails for questions
and problems must be promoted by and for all class members.
The instructor can determine the quality of cohesiveness in the
learning community by how much support is visible in course
talk; e.g. peer editing, APA format sharing, or calling a member
out for lack of participation in the form of a “Welcome back
X··· I have missed your critical dialog··· discussion thread is
not the same without you!”
There are several benefits to cohort development and the re-
sulting collaboration during the learning process. Collaboration
among members provides a platform for exchanging ideas and
personal philosophies. The affects of supportive, qua-
si-mediated online interaction encourages continued participa-
tion through shared knowledge. Each participant is an expert in
one or many best-practices. We have learned engagement, in
the learning platform, must be clearly communicated to stu-
dents along with a discussion rubric to ensure reflective re-
sponse contributions. Collaboration in discussion thread activi-
ties has a schedule for original posting and required response to
others. Collegiality cannot be assumed; rather it must be spe-
cifically encouraged by the quality instructor promoting en-
Sharing techniques and methods will encourage personal and
professional skill growth. As an example, a student writes an
original post, and through collaborative discussion develops a
final outcome of an educational philosophy in a required activ-
ity. Kindergarten teacher, D. W. (2013) wrote as a final per-
sonal philosophy statement “··· I do not follow any one par-
ticular education theory but combine ideas from many leaders
in the field to develop a philosophy that best suits the needs of
my particular group of learners ···” D. W. then provided spe-
cifics with descriptions/explanations of those best practices
embedded in her personal philosophy of education. These post-
ings in the weekly discussion threads of the online class pro-
vides an original post from which students receive feedback
from peers encouraging continued critical thinking in the de-
velopment of required activities for these “School Leader” can-
Content of the online course is the third major component to
be discussed. The content of each degree program provides for
rigorous and relevant learning. The core learning objectives and
outcomes are developed from professional standards appropri-
ate to each degree program at Park University. In the graduate
School for Education these standards are provided through the
Missouri Standards for the Preparation of Educators (MoSPE),
Interstate School Leader Licensure Consortium Standards
(ISLLC), and the National Board for Professional Teaching
Standards (NBPTS). Learning outcomes must be clearly identi-
fied and state what students must know and be able to do.
These learning outcomes are established through professional
licensing standards and are reflected explicitly in course learn-
ing outcomes. All online activities should be aligned with the
course objectives and core learning outcomes. Assessment is
necessary to show whether students learned the intended objec-
Content is directly manipulated by the professor in the online
classroom. In order for cohesiveness to be developed with co-
hort groups, the professor must communicate the purpose for
study and the expectations guiding the study. As facilitator, the
instructor should summarize important points and ideas, as well
as provide a model linking theory to practice. They should en-
courage students to do the same by having critical discussions
which challenge thinking and problem-solving. Specific and
immediate feedback on individual and group assignments
should be provided. In order to teach online courses, Park Uni-
versity requires successful completion of online-training for
instructors through their own online learning in ED750 BOOT
CAMP. Quality of instruction is a key to both accreditation and
for cohort success. Instructors are given continued support at
Park University with various links on the Park website. Support
can be in the form of reviewing the course home, how to set up
grading, designing introductions, lectures, assignments, exams,
etc. There is also a forum for instructors to connect to each
other to share strategies, thoughts, and other needs.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 11
A cohort is as successful as each individual member is suc-
cessful. All activities are based upon key learning ingredi-
ents—communication, respect, and commitment. Students can
be as actively engaged as much or more so in online learning
classes, as opposed to F2F classes. More engagement in learn-
ing generally means more motivation and improvements in the
thinking process (Barkley, 2010). Students can work in various
group formats, as well as individually. Students can be in
charge of asking questions to their peers on the discussion
threads. Assignments and grades can be individual as well as
group oriented. Pairing students can be used to review each
other’s papers. Each group member can have a specific role in
the assignment, e.g., to summarize, research, encourage, and/or
serve as recorder in order that each participant makes a sub-
stantive contribution.
Learning strategies including probing questions, the one-
minute paper, the clearest/muddiest point of the lesson, jig-saw
of an article, think-pair-share, and a daily journal can be used
with online learning. Students can be divided into two groups
and debate two sides of an issue. Case-studies of real-life situa-
tions can be easily discussed (McKinley & Choi, 2013). Stu-
dents participating in active, engaging classes report not feeling
alone. They feel part of a community as they collaborate with
others in rich, meaningful content (Online teacher evaluation,
Respect for each member must become a habit“We are
what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a
habit”··· Aristotle.
Respect wil l become the rules of engageme nt for all commu-
nication in the class platform between peers/colleagues and
student and instructor. Respect is a necessary but not sufficient
element for commitment to the cohort online learning model.
We believe that commitment follows respect.
Self-discipline for continued communication and engage-
ment must be a trait possessed by each member. We believe
this trait will be successfully reinforced with respectful en-
gagement by all members of the cohort learning community.
This communication and engagement by the instructor includes
answering student concerns in a timely manner—Park policy
requires at least 4 contact days per week, including weekends
and in a timely manner within 24 and no more than 48 hours.
Self-discovery—insight—by students must be facilitated as a
best-practice by the instructor (DeFour, 2004).
In closing, the three areas of Community, Collaboration, and
Content are necessary components for successful cohort online
learning. The team concept must be embraced by cohort mem-
bers. The university/college has a responsibility for developing
standards-based core learning outcomes. The instructor guides
learning by facilitating teaching and learning strategies. He/she
is responsible for students’ success. However, each student has
an individual responsibility to their own learning and to the
cohort “team” for outcomes-based achievement. This is what
makes a purposeful cohort online learning model.
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